Women of color, many of whom are running formerly white-led nonprofits, are asking themselves what it means to be a liberatory leader. They are at the forefront of such exploration, as they are currently charged with transforming organizations that were created with dominant cultural assumptions and even values. I wrote about my own experience last year, in response to conversations with nonprofit leaders about my book, The Power Manual, where I make a case for liberatory power, the ability to create what we want.

Now, the concept of liberatory leadership is beginning to take form. At this year’s annual conference of the Association of Black Foundation Executives (ABFE), practitioners of liberatory leadership shared what they are learning in a session on the topic.

Trish Tchume, Director of Liberatory Leadership Practice at the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation (RSCF), Chinyere Tutashinda, Executive Director of the Center for Third World Organizing (CTWO), and Kharyshi Wiginton, Program Manager at the CTWO, hosted the session. They pointed to the Race to Lead series of reports published by the Building Movement Project, launched in 2016, which highlight the experiences of leaders of color, as an important effort to “put data behind our guts.”

The reports show that DEI trainings are not enough to transform formerly white-led organizations into places where leaders of color can thrive. The most recent report, Trading Glass Ceilings for Glass Cliffs, tells us that while women of color are now often charged with making nonprofit organizations more equitable, they are not supported in doing so or paid adequately for this work. Further, these leaders want to explore liberatory leadership, not just institutionalize equity. Tchume says, “We want the world we’re trying to create.”

The Praxis Cohort and Fellowship, a project of the Liberatory Leadership Partnership (which is comprised of RSCF, CTWO, Leadership Learning Community, and Social Insights Research) provides funding for eight organizations to explore liberatory leadership together. All the organizations—selected out of 150 applicants—are anti-capitalist and have organizing values and Black leadership. The project focuses on newer organizations because such organizations are likely to fail in their first five years. As such, most selectees are under three years old. The organizations each receive $30,000, meet monthly to share with and learn from each other, and receive coaching on liberatory leadership. A core approach is teaching through practice. The work is deeply personal, connected to purpose—and there can be conflict.

The project began by defining liberation as “the experience of wholeness, freedom, justice, and thriving.” Liberatory leadership then “invites leaders to prefigure, through their approaches, a world of collective freedom.”

One of the questions the project explores is, “How to talk to different people—funders, leaders, and communities—about liberatory leadership?” Another is, “What is an accountability structure for liberatory leadership?” And, also, “What does continual support for liberatory leadership look like?”

Some of the lessons participants are learning include:

  1. The need for cultivating liberatory leadership is huge, so there is room for other funders.
  2. It is difficult for leaders of color to find funding that is values aligned.
  3. There are lots of land initiatives, farming projects, and retreat centers among the people doing this work.
  4. It is critical to have personal development, not just technical support, particularly around power dynamics. People are going through personal transformation.
  5. Some people are starting organizations with romantic partners and other kinfolk, challenging traditional notions of conflict of interest.
  6. This work needs flexible space. It doesn’t thrive in a rigid environment. Leaders of color need the freedom to fail, “like the average white man at the average company,” as Tchume notes Praxis members like to say, “with leaders of color, often the expectation is that everything should be perfect from pitch to execution.”
  7. There is a need to develop technologies and legal structures that support liberatory leadership.
  8. It is important to infuse liberatory leadership in an organization’s early stages. This is easier than changing organizational culture later.
  9. For funders, it is important to prioritize the needs of leaders of color, especially those who are exploring liberatory leadership—see what is needed and then cut the check. When possible, endow BIPOC-led organizations.

Tchume says, “Liberation is 1,000 little experiments, not models.”

The overarching message of this session, titled “How Philanthropy Must Shift to Support Liberatory Leadership,” is, “Fund dreaming, not just established organizations.”